Penn State Forward An Unlikely Success Story, In More Ways Than One
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In the stands at the Joe Louis Arena, Carl Folkes was almost frozen in place. Below him, double overtime was gliding by on the ice. Penn State’s season wasn’t on the line, but the Nittany Lions had a chance to win their first Big Ten trophy. And his son, Liam Folkes, had a chance to be the hero.
But Liam wasn't supposed to be there that night.
Actually, if you listened to the doctors, Liam and his twin brother Tre should never have survived after birth.
Over 21 years ago, the Folkes brothers were born three months prematurely. They each weighed less than a pound, and doctors told Carl, and his wife Ali, that the babies would not live. And even if they did, they would spend their lives like vegetables — blind, unable to walk, unable to eat.
The twins spent the next three months in incubators. Carl and Ali spent each day in the hospital, watching as their children suffered from brain bleeds and strokes.
“It was pretty trying on both myself and my wife, but what we said was, if this was the deck of cards that we were dealt we'll have to deal with it,” Carl said. “We were prepared to bathe our kids for lives, we were prepared to wheel them around in a wheelchair for lives, we were prepared to feed them for their lives.”
Finally, the Folkes took the twins home. They still only weighed roughly four pounds each, but most importantly, they were alive. And functioning normally.
“They were born at the hospital called Mount Sinai and they're known as Mount Sinai's miracle babies. … For them to walk away unscathed and to do as well as they do academically and also socially and athletically, it's a blessing, it's a godsend,” Carl said.
“We were happy-go-lucky to have them and we just didn't give them the opportunity to know that they were born early. We didn't even tell them or show them pictures, not even of the way they'd looked when they were born until late in their lives, maybe 16, 17 years old, because we never wanted them to go, 'Well, you know what, the reason why I can't do this is because I was born early.'”
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On Saturday, Liam Folkes did more than defy the doctor’s expectations. He defied the expectations of statistics, probability and fatigue of playing nearly four games in three days. Last weekend, after the Nittany Lions had defeated Michigan and then Minnesota in double overtime, they skated with Wisconsin in double overtime, just one golden goal away from a win. A goal away from giving Penn State its first major championship, in just the program's fifth year of existence, and a big lift as it entered its first NCAA tournament.
"I'd never been in a tournament like the one we just played, going into double overtime two nights in a row against two strong Minnesota and Wisconsin teams,” Liam said. “That was definitely a tough time for us and I'm sure it was one of the toughest times I've had to play in hockey.”
Folkes had already scored once in the game, giving Penn State the 1-0 lead just five minutes into the period. It would be the only goal of the game until Matt Ustaski tied the game for the Badgers midway through the third. After the game was knotted, no one on the bench panicked. They went out and kept pushing — as Guy Gadowsky teams do — and skated with the Badgers.
And then 6:43 into the second overtime, a faceoff was taken just outside the Badgers' zone. They won the faceoff and brought the puck into Penn State’s zone. But Wisconsin couldn’t hold onto the puck, and a series of Penn State poke checks allowed Brandon Biro to steal it.
"I remember [it] getting turned over in our zone and then I saw there was open ice so I kind of jumped and luckily Biro fed me a good a good pass,” Folkes said.
Biro crossed Penn State’s blue line and fed the puck to Folkes, who at that point had already beaten his defender. There was just a patch of clear ice separated Liam from Badgers’ goalie Jack Berry.
Smoothly Folkes stickhandled and with one flick sent the puck past Berry. Liam skated across the ice and was buried by his teammates.
“He made a really nice move on the goalie and it was pretty exciting when he scored,” Biro said. “I know everyone was pretty tired at that point and so it was just pretty cool for him to get that one. He's worked so hard all year so for a guy like him to score two goals in a game like that is pretty cool to see."
And up in the stands, for the first time, people were asking Carl if he was Liam’s father — instead of asking Liam if he was Carl’s son.
Folkes was a hero.
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Hockey had always fascinated Carl. He and his family moved from Jamaica to Canada when he was three years old, and by the time he was six, Carl was hooked. But his parents had little interest in sitting in a cold rink, so Carl turned to track and field. The moved worked, and Carl competed in the sport during the 1988 Summer Olympics. Ali was also a track athlete, so naturally both Tre and Liam fell into the sport. They even won a track and field championship in Toronto.
But everyone around the twins — their cousins and neighbors — played ice hockey. So they wanted to play too.
“We didn’t even know how to put on the equipment when they first started, they were eight years old,” Carl said. “But after their first skate, they absolutely loved it and relished the game to the point where they won their last track and field championship and then retired from track and field to pursue only hockey.”
Eventually Liam and Tre moved onto the CCHL. Liam played two seasons with the Brockville Braves, where he scored 118 points over 109 games. The forward caught Penn State’s attention during one of the tournaments and committed to the school. Liam’s move to Penn State marked the first time he had ever played without his twin.
“They've both displayed super growth,” Carl said. “Not only on the sheet of ice but just in life. They've become their own true individual men and that's a testament to them being separate. Now, mind you, my phone bill goes through the roof because they Facetime each other every single day.”
While playing, Tre and Liam — part of a small group of players of color in hockey — faced racism. Liam has always told the twins that racism is ignorance and should never be tolerated, but it happens.
“Now the game of hockey and the shade of hockey is changing,” Carl said. “There's so many mixed families now that are getting their kids involved. There's so many black families that are getting involved, Asian families that are getting involved the game, it's beautiful to see. But I always let the guys know that there's always going to be ignorance and we've got to be better and we've got to ride through it.
"There's no better way to ride through it than going out and beating that individual in a game, beating that team in a game. And they've been able to do that. They've been able to shine on the ice and that's my greatest revenge. ... They know how to roll with the punches."
Liam and Tre are becoming role models for younger players of color. But the twins have learned from their own role models — NHL players like Chris Stewart, Wayne Simmonds and Devante Smith-Pelly.
"These are guys that come to my house in the summertime, they speak to the boys on a regular basis. Joel Ward, who plays for San Jose, also black, he's at my house,” Carl said. “So my boys see success on the professional level with players of color and these guys who I've just mentioned, they are pivotal in terms of being role models.
"They've been called all kinds of names. I remember an incident when Wayne Simmonds was thrown a banana on the ice and he's had to talk about his experience, and he speaks to the boys' experiences. And when the boys are going through turmoil they've got not only myself, but they've got other players of color, professional players, making a lot of money, who've dealt with the same situation.”
Liam took his revenge the exact way Carl wanted him too — by excelling at hockey. At 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds, he is one of the smallest forwards at Penn State.
“He's used his brain and his skill, his brain and his soft hands and his speed to now to be something to be reckoned with."
While speed comes easily for Liam, defense does not. It’s an area the forward, who plays on the fourth line, is trying to improve. But offense didn’t come so easily to Liam at the beginning of the year, either. He needed to keep up with a faster pace of play and missed five games the first half of the season. In the second half, he missed seven. Liam actually didn’t dress for Penn State’s last three games of the regular season. And he finished with just four goals and 10 points.
But he played in all three Big Ten tournament games. And he made it count by scoring three goals — including the one that won Penn State’s first Big Ten championship.
“I'm sure he would've liked to score more during the season but, hey, he's scoring at the right times," Carl said. "He says, 'Dad, I've been coached by a lot of coaches but the coaches here at Penn State are the best of the best and they're teachers.'
"Hats off to the coaching staff down at Hockey Valley and hats off to Liam and Tre for just continuing to fight when all the odds were stacked against them.”